Frequently Asked Questions
erroneous stories are those we think we know best—and therefore never
scrutinize or question.” — Stephen Jay Gould
Heavy ion fusion (HIF) uses beams of high-energy heavy ions to ignite small amounts of fusion fuel. This combines the thoroughly understood technology of particle accelerators with the equally understood physics of fusion explosions, the miniaturization and cleansing of which is the essence of inertial confinement fusion (ICF).
The process of heavy ion fusion, although similar to laser fusion and other methods of inertial confinement fusion, is the only method that leads to economical power production in the near term – without the need for further scientific and technological breakthroughs.
HIF uses ion beam and accelerator technologies wherein beams of heavy ions are accelerated to high energies (by a large particle accelerator) before impacting a pellet containing the fusion fuel (a cryogenically frozen mixture of deuterium and tritium, the isotopes of hydrogen). The ion beam impacts on the outer "shell" of the pellet which is made of a separate material such as lead. The overall size of the pellet is on the order of 1 cm, cylindrical in shape, with ion beams impacting on the two ends of the cylinder.
The energy of this impact results in the "ignition and burn" of the fusion fuel (deuterium and tritium fuses together to form helium plus a fast neutron, as represented by the nuclear reaction D + T → He + n).
However, as in all ICF schemes, the ignition needs to occur in a two-step process whereby the fusion fuel is first compressed to very high density and then ignited by a high temperature "spark" – analogous to an automobile's internal combustion engine.
The entire process of compressing and igniting the fusion fuel occurs on a timescale of 10 to 100 nanoseconds. Therefore, the ion beam that impacts the pellet must be a short pulse on that same timescale, rather than a continuous stream of ions.
When the ignition temperature is reached, a self-sustaining thermonuclear reaction will occur in the compressed fuel, rapidly "burning" a large fraction of the fuel before it can expand and disperse from its own outward pressure.
The self-burning action of the fuel releases many times more energy than was used to accelerate the ion beams. The ratio of energy input (the accelerator) to energy output (the fusion reaction) is called the fusion energy "Gain". Heavy ion fusion is capable of a Gain on the order of 1000. The Gain parameter is closely related to the EROEI parameter (Energy Return On Energy Invested) that is a "figure of merit" of any power source. The highest EROEI of any power source in history came from so-called "old oil", crude oil that was easily pumped to the surface (none of which still exists today). Old oil fields typically produced an EROEI on the order of 100. Therefore, heavy ion fusion is capable of better EROEI values than old oil.
HIF was introduced to the world by an extraordinary gathering of experts called by the Energy Research and Development Administration (ERDA, now DOE) in 1976. The participants brought the leadership from all the US laboratories involved in ICF research together with peers from the accelerator community for the single purpose of confirming the discovery that conventional high-energy accelerators, based on RF power and magnetically guided beams, had the “right stuff” to produce commercial power from ICF. At the end of that 2-week workshop, the head of ERDA’s Office of Inertial Fusion summarized the unanimous and strong consensus that heavy ion fusion faced “no showstoppers” and stated that the mature state of accelerator technology warranted proceeding directly to a major facility project. This goal faltered in the USA, for complicated and non-technical reasons, despite the accumulating reinforcement of worldwide studies. After 1979, ICF research became more, rather than less, exclusively for military objectives, with military funding, with laser development receiving the lion’s share. Since the US did not fund HIF research, leadership was ceded to Europe and Russia. Funding and encouragement have been provided for the strong German-Russian HIF collaboration, which has made important concept improvements and hardware demonstrations.
The forces from the small size of
the explosions in ICF systems are
readily contained. The fusion process cannot “runaway”. “Melt down” is completely
impossible, because the afterheat due to
induced radioactivity is hardly noticeable. FPC’s chamber system solves the primary challenge to fusion
that comes from the neutrons, which carry 80% of the energy of the fusion
reaction. Solution of the neutron issues has been the basis of FPC’s system
since 1973. Those neutron issues are fundamental: otherwise, atoms in steel and
other vessel materials would be transmuted to radioactive isotopes and
materials would become brittle and not able to serve their structural roles.
ICF systems can solve the neutron challenge because the chamber atmosphere only needs to permit transmission of the beam of ignition energy. Therefore, a thickness of liquid metal can be provided inside the chamber to absorb the neutron energy and the vast preponderance of the neutrons themselves. From recognizing this protection in 1973, FPC’s system has developed to achieve the safety and environmental advantages that have always been major attractions of fusion.
No. This is not a requirement for ICF systems. Thick liquid metal layers inside FPC’s chamber intercept the high energy neutrons before they hit the wall. Other fusion concepts such as magnetic bottles require the fusion fuel at 100 million degrees to be isolated from the vessel wall by a hard vacuum. This precludes interposing a neutron buffer between the fusion reactions and the walls. Without such protection, the lifetime of the chambers is estimated to be a few years at best. For such constructs, replacement of the degraded and radioactive material dominates maintenance scenarios, as the structures are massive and have complex functions. Motivated by the necessity to solve this problem, development of FPC’s system has been grounded since 1973 in the economic, safety, and environmental advantages that accrue from protecting the structural materials of the power chambers by thick layers of liquid metal.
How can you say “the public will have the last say” when the history of huge projects, notably energy and fossil fuels as well as fission nuclear power, has been marked by abuses?
Chronologically, the first feature of FPC’s design was to reduce radiation damage to the materials of the fusion vessel and thereby achieve long operational lifetimes. Success in this reduces the generation of radioactive waste not just to technically “safe” levels, but to virtually trivial levels. These aspects of FPC's approach serve the interests of the public in safe, clean, affordable energy. Ultimately, the real public interest drives progress, and fosters the financial interests of industry. The features that minimize radiation and radioactive waste also have made it possible for FPC to design the system to prevent fusion’s neutrons from being used for production of materials for nuclear weapons. This underscores the point that civilian power production is the single purpose of FPC's system, and permits full transparency such as putting monitoring signals on the internet to be viewed by the public. This level of transparency will permeate the project and provide the public with solid grounds for strong support.
No. The fact is that the heavy ion driver has been seen as the only driver capable of meeting all requirements for power production based on inertial fusion.
Despite the laser approach having received almost all funding for ICF, even leaders of the laser approach are on record confirming that heavy ion beams are required for fusion power production. The genesis of HIF in the mid-1970s was in large part due to recognition by laser scientists at that time that no laser would meet the requirements for ignition in power plants. ICF R&D began within months of the invention of the Q-switched laser in 1962. Within a few years, the required scale-up of the energy in the laser pulse was established, via the extensive knowledge base from weapons development. Contrary to popular criticism (in reaction to unfulfilled promotional claims), the defense community’s program has been consistent in its pursuit of the required scaling-up of many million-fold. In parallel with laser development, the fundamental issue of coupling laser light efficiently into the target spawned a rich field of research called “laser-matter interaction”, involving many complex physics processes that exacerbate the basic issue that the laser light cannot penetrate beyond the outer layers of the imploding fuel capsule.
The National Ignition Facility (NIF) is the culmination of the effort to
develop laser pulses in accordance with requirements set over 40 years ago. NIF
will pulse once or twice a day. NIF’s glass-laser technology can do no better.
After 40 years of development, the plan for “laser fusion” will set glass laser
technology aside and develop another laser technology.
The goal of the proposed next laser fusion project, called "LIFE", will no longer be fusion power but a fusion neutron source to drive a sub-critical fission reactor. In place of the encompassing benefits of fusion power, LIFE proposes substitute goals that are meritorious, but which FPC's system will accomplish much more robustly and completely. Where LIFE proposes a fission fuel cycle that burns its own radwaste, FPC's system, first, does not produce any important amount of radwaste, and second can designate one of its multiple chambers to radioactive waste destruction—transporting the ignition beams as far as desired to sequester that chamber, underground like all chambers and most of the accelerator system. There is no equal to a pure fusion system.The accomplishments of ICF R&D with lasers are substantial. Most importantly, the R&D has explored the limits of fuel compression—the key to miniaturized fusion explosions. NIF needs to compress fuel to ~ 1200 g/cc. Among the elements of precision this requires is manufacturing the fuel targets. If NIF does achieve ignition, the affordability of the fuel pellets will be on the list of uncertainties remaining on the path to power production.
In contrast, FPC's system operates with a fuel density that already has been achieved, 1/10th that which NIF needs. The importance of this situation cannot be overstated. It is critically related to the ability of heavy ion beams to achieve the process known as fast ignition, with the same heavy-ion energy deposition by classical physics that has always been a fundamental element of HIF. Confidence that the required compression will be achieved for every pulse—as is fundamental for a power system, in every power chamber, once a second, 24/7, with allowances for jitter etc. in the target and beam trajectory, comes from "all of the above": ten times more energy in the ignition pulses than lasers can provide (20MJ vs. <2MJ), high beam-target coupling efficiency with classical physics, fast ignition.
In addition to HIF’s basic advantages, much of the excitement at the genesis of HIF was due to the technology’s everyday high repetition rates, efficiency, and durability (complemented by focusing with magnetic fields, with the magnets themselves shielded from the line-of-sight). Except for the benefit of fast ignition, which process was recognized only in the 1990s, all of these advantages were well known when HIF was “discovered” in 1975. Fast ignition now is an important reason why the schedule to fruition has shrunk since 1979, despite being under-funded. "All of the above" add up to "good to go."
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1976. The fundamental misunderstanding in this objection is its failure to appreciate the importance of the vast databases and the spectacular success record of particle accelerators. These design capabilities provide the means to confidently predict the performance of a machine designed in accordance with experiential knowledge—and scrupulously reviewed by a community that assiduously protects its reputation.
The essential new thing about an accelerator system to drive ICF is that the heavy ions need to be accelerated in a low charge state, most likely singly charged (one electron removed from the neutral atom). Approved designs are required to stay within defined limits posed by “space charge” (particles with the same sign of electric charge repel each other). Handling ions in a low charge state introduces potential for collisions to change the charge state and knock ions out of the beam. This problem is less of a concern for heavy-ion accelerators designed for research, as these employ highly stripped ions to multiply the effect of the accelerating fields and reduce the size and cost of the machine. Collisions between multiply stripped ions are much less likely to knock ions out of orbit.
Ground-rules for handling ions in a low charge state established by the earliest HIF conceptual designs and assessments continue to guide designs to this day. In fact, these requirements were prime considerations in the reëxamination of the HIF driver that culminated in FPC's proprietary advantages. Another top purpose of the reëxamination was to shed the artificial restriction of the HIF pulses to comparability with laser capabilities, which had been imposed by the target designers at the nuclear weapons laboratories.
FPC’s design revision took 10-years, 1999-2009, to accomplish two major goals: 1. Elimination of the potential for catastrophic beam loss, and 2. Raising the energy content of each ignition pulse by ten-fold, to 20 MJ. In the design process, accumulating beam in storage rings became unnecessary. Storage rings had been a conceptual fixture in HIF drivers, but, besides the potential for sudden beam loss, using storage rings caused the beam focus on the fusion target to become looser, in proportion to the factor by which the rings accumulated beam. This had been accepted because the heavy ion beams still gave the best target performance of any driver.
The capabilities of the single-pass RF driver (SPRFD) reflect a requirement for a large machine that is first of its kind as expressed in the instructions from Edward Teller to Richard Garwin, who was designing the first experimental fusion explosion, “make the design as conservative as possible.” In addition to removing the uncertainty about beam loss, SPRFD’s beam capabilities exceed the most conservative sets of ignition requirements ever proposed. In addition to increasing the ignition pulse energy 10-fold, the tighter focal spot meets the requirement for fast ignition. The tighter focus also amplifies the potency of the beam for fuel compression, an advantage whose effect on design margin has not yet been explored. The net effect is that the FPC system is the only approach to fusion power that has ever provided design margin for ignition.Confidence in HIF, as established by the ERDA workshop in 1976, is the ability to verify the predicted performance of RF accelerator systems with design tools that are time-tested. During the first years after HIF’s start, intense, international assessments of conceptual HIF designs established design ground-rules, which the revised features of the FPC design observe. This kind of intensive assessment now will result in the start of marshaling the resources needed to bring fusion power on-stream within ten years.
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Can heavy ion fusion supply enough energy soon enough to help solve the immediate problems in the economy and environment?
Yes. Key features in FPC’s plan make it possible to build out the fusion power system on the urgent timeline imposed by deepening economic and environmental issues. These features include the readiness of the technology, the absence of safety or environmental issues, the readiness of industrial capabilities, and the profit potential needed to attract the necessary capital. FPC’s plan for openness to public scrutiny highlights the absence of issues that could impede site construction. The large energy output of each site will help accomplish timely resolution of the world energy problem.
How is it possible to accept FPC’s claim that fusion power can be on-stream in 10 years when the experts of the world are apparently unanimous in saying it will take much longer?
If leadership—whether in industry, academia, or government—were charged to bring fusion power on-stream ASAP, it would ask a sequence of plain questions such as shown in the figure. The order of asking the questions is significant. Putting the questions surrounding the Chamber at the head of the list is appropriate because that is where “the rubber meets the road”: economic and technical practicality, worker and public safety, light environmental footprint. These questions must have strongly positive answers if the game is worth the candle. Fusion ignition naturally is crucial. The point of the logic tree is that all go / no-go questions must have yes answers. Although there can be more than one viable logical tree trunk, the only one that currently is prepared to stand and deliver is the FPC plan.
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These attributes are necessities, because a working “prototype" for a fusion power system will be indistinguishable from the ultimate machine. This does not mean, however, that operating the power plant is the only means to prove that it will work. Assurance of success for a project such as this resides in following a meticulous project plan. Risk progressively decreases as each step attains the low level of risk needed to justify the next.
The imperatives of risk reduction begin with the assessment that will justify the substantial resources required to launch the project. The resources needed to accomplish this assessment are modest. Because the FPC plan is grounded on mainstream technologies and built on established HIF and ICF design concepts, the assessment needed for the project kick-off can be completed in a matter of months.
As concluded by the “extraordinary gathering of experts” at the ERDA Summer Study in 1976, the science and technology of particle accelerators already warranted that the first step would be a major facility, complemented by others to verify performance of key technologies. A particularly instructive example of such tests for HIF development was demonstration that the “front ends” of the heavy ion accelerator system would produce beams with the required “high brightness”, the most fundamental requirement for adapting existing conventional accelerators for HIF. Successful performance of that test at the Argonne National Laboratory in 1979 illustrated another important aspect for executing a multi-disciplinary project such as fusion: engaging all potential sources of expertise. The1979 instance was that, unknown to the high-energy accelerator community, the required source technology had been developed by the aerospace industry.
Although development of HIF was slowed down only a few years after the excitement of its discovery, the readiness of the accelerator community to contribute on short notice has always been clear. Many of HIF’s ingredient technologies have experienced huge improvements. A particular similarity to Apollo—a precedent whose “working prototype” also was the real thing—regards computer technology. The requirements of the “moonshot” strained (and boosted) the computer technology of the 1960s. Large accelerator systems also rely on rapidly processing large amounts of instrumentation and control data. The development of the world wide web at CERN grew out of these needs. Major advances in designing and managing complex projects also have been due to fast computing. The advances of electronics and computers in recent decades that have revolutionized so much of modern society will play a similarly fundamental role in enabling HIF to reach fruition in 10 years.
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Development of an overall simulation model will proceed through simulations of subsystems mated to adjoining subsystems. Individually, these system elements either have been reduced to everyday practice or are amenable to high confidence simulations. The end-to-end simulation will be an essential adjunct to the control system for the operational plant.
Risk reduction is accomplished with a comprehensive program plan. The process of assessment that leads to a decision to proceed includes identification of the main tests for components and subsystems. Engineering experiments will be required. The physics has been demonstrated.
Since fusion R&D has been the province of government and FPC’s plan has similarities to Project Apollo and other large government projects, what are the distinguishing differences?
The chief missions of projects like Apollo or Manhattan were governmental. Energy supply is an economic mission. While fusion research has been the responsibility of government, all major fusion projects, here including high-energy particle accelerators, are built with hardware primarily made by industry, and designed either with industrial input or by contract to industrial providers. Going forward, the dynamic will integrate a spectrum of government capabilities, including expertise and existing facilities, in a tightly controlled process, following a rigorous project plan, with contributions the private sector and academia. The energy business is a highly profitable segment of the economy and the world energy supply system of today involves tremendous capital investments. The defining difference with large projects serving essentially governmental purposes will be, therefore, that the fusion project will be financed predominantly by the private sector.
The significance of the IP is that it achieves completion of the goal of defining an entire fusion power system that meets all requirements for safe, clean, and economical production of fusion power. These innovations are most obvious in, but not restricted to, the heavy-ion accelerator driver system. Numerous other proprietary features add important improvements to the fusion chamber, energy use, and fusion target and fuel injection systems. As no other such complete fusion power system has been defined, the essential strength of the IP is that, to nullify its protection, some other equally workable, and putatively better, system would need to be put forward. The possibility of this happening is an article of faith in the advance of technology. The likelihood of this happening in the near future is not great.
Since the capital needed to implement heavy ion fusion is very large, how can a new company like FPC be an important player?
The Company’s primary roles concern design. In view of the immensity of the endeavor, a central tenet of the Company’s plan is engagement of leaders in the ingredient areas, including power generation and liquid fuel production as well as the fusion and accelerator technologies. The big leaders in the energy use arenas are in industry, with important centers of excellence in government laboratories and academia. FPC's plan necessarily is flexible. Collaboration via partnering, subcontracting, and teaming arrangements is a fixture in the plan. FPC expects some of the partners in the design work to be from among the ranks of the kinds of large companies that will combine their resources for the construction projects. The Company further envisions a need for extensive design work to customize facilities for worldwide locations, as well as to incorporate improvements when they become proven. The Company also envisions growth focused on improving both fusion power systems and their major applications.
Once the practicality of heavy ion fusion is confirmed, what would prevent other companies with much greater resources from building a system without FPC?
The purpose of the IP is to define a path to profitable fusion power. The intention of the Company is to cause a coming together of the industrial, laboratory, academic, and financial institutions necessary to implement fusion power. Variations and improvements of the design by others are to be assumed, although the Company plans unremitting efforts to improve the subject design and be as likely as any others to discover alternatives to it. Despite decades of research, however, FPC’s is the only complete fusion power system that has been defined. To nullify the protection of the Company’s IP, some other equally workable, and putatively better, system would need to be put forward. While the possibility of this happening is an article of faith in the advance of technology, the likelihood of this happening in the near future is not great. Improvements by others that can substantially improve FPC’s design will result in negotiated agreements to incorporate the IP owned by others, per conventional practice.Foster Panel report in 1979 to DOE’s Energy Research and Advisory Board strongly endorsed HIF. The DOE did not act on the endorsement, and the Foster Panel report has never been declassified. In 1985, a review of ICF by the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) noted the advantages of heavy ion beams, across the board, but declared that the energy problem was “dormant for the time being.” All ICF funding in the US has been from the military, for military purposes; HIF’s only purpose is power production, and HIF’s particle accelerator technology is of no interest to the military. The issue was concisely stated in testimony at a Congressional hearing on fusion energy in 2009: “ IFE (energy production by inertial fusion) has no home.” The now dire—no longer “dormant”—energy problem has now spurred the DOE to request another NAS study, this time emphasizing the “potential of IFE for power production.” Question your government officials and legislators regarding the handling of this NAS study. The truth will set you free.
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